Thursday, October 06, 2005

Better than a Punch in the Face!

Here's an excerpt from yesterday's show, perhaps the best of the seventy or eighty I've done so far. For a listen, click here. And click on Better than a punch in the face: Dr. John's Personal Stories.

This just in…I often talk about being married, having children and parenting to your children’s potential on this show. However, there are many of you out there who are not married and are happy being single and that’s okay. One of my listeners told me, "I never married because I never had the need. I have three pets at home which serve the same purpose as a husband. I have a dog which growls every morning, a parrot which swears all afternoon and a cat that comes home late at night." Apparently, our role as husbands have been replaced by domestic animals! Hey, what about the parenting we do?!

At the age of 27, while working towards my Ph.D. I found myself as an intern in charge of the psychological needs of a large school. At that time, I was still attending classes and writing theses and dissertations. I was busily testing and diagnosing children as fast as I could work. There were several groups counseling sessions that I ran as well as daily crises that arose – fighting, school anxiety, depressed students, and so on.

The funny thing about training for psych students is that the best schools in the world are preparing people to do counseling yet never talk about how to manage your own destructive emotions as a psychologist. So most interns and new shrinks get overwhelmed and succumb to depression.

And that’s exactly what happened to me.

At every school I worked, I was given the boys with the worst behavior problems in the school and told to put them into group counseling. This is due to the fact that you don’t have enough time to see them all one-on-one. And the funny thing is that these kids were the best part of my job because when you gave them attention and treated them with respect, they were cool kids and I loved talking to them.

One group I ran in a middle school was comprised of 8 boys aged 11-13, keep in mind that these are the most difficult boys in a school of 1000. So I saw them once a week and chatted with them about things they liked to talk about. I created a connection with them. We had a rapport.

Middle school is interesting because the social hierarchy is so clearly delineated by the age of 11. There are the cool kids, the geeks, the outcasts, the skaters and so on. And even within this group of 8 boys, there was a pecking order. All of these boys had broken homes, no dad, and ADHD. None of them could sit still and pay attention for any length of time. Their grades were in the toilet. Most were severely impulsive, that is they acted before they could even consider the consequences of their actions.

Now the kid at the bottom of the pecking order, let’s call him Todd, was the most impulsive of the bunch. This is saying a lot. He couldn’t stay in his chair, couldn’t keep his whole body still for more than 5 seconds to save his life. He lacked social skills. He was always getting in fights with other kids because his mouth would go in motion before his mind caught up. So he’d insult a bigger, older student and wind up getting beat up after school weekly. He was big for his age, but that didn’t help him because his ability to connect with other kids was so poor. The other students mercilessly teased him causing a gradual build up of anger.

One day, I was running the group as usual. The boys were more agitated than usual. They were stirred up and excited for some reason. As always, with groups, I tried to give the students a different view of adults than what they typically received – yelling, anger, contempt, and punishment. So I tried my best to be relaxed, calm, and caring with them.

However, this day, Todd was wound up more tightly than normal.

In the midst of the session, Todd sprung out of his chair and came over the table at me. He ran up to me and took a swing at my face. I sat in my chair and stared at him. His fist stopped about an inch from my nose. Apparently, he had some self-control after all.

Let me tell you, when anyone throws a punch at you, some fear creeps in. Yet, you have to overcome your fear when you are dealing with children and teenagers, otherwise they will sniff it out, expose it, exploit it and run you straight into the ground.

When he threw a punch at me, I had a choice. Do I send him to the vice-principal’s office for discipline or do I take a risk and treat him differently than every other adult in his life?

Rather than send him to the vice—principal for discipline, which is what any teacher in the school would have done, and rightly so, I invited him to take his seat or return to his class. He chose to take his seat. I turned to the group and asked them, “Okay, now what just happened?” The students were stunned. It took a few minutes to get them to talk about it. Eventually, they said they saw Todd take a swing at me and I did nothing to respond. They said they had never seen anything like it.

In their world, anger was ALWAYS met with anger.

It was inconceivable to respond any other way, until that moment.

Of course, after the group was done that day, I went into my office and collapsed into exhausted my chair. Yet, over the next 2 years, I received calls from every one of those boys’ mothers to inquire about individual counseling outside of school.

That day definitely made an impact on how those boys viewed the world around them. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying that I solved all the problems in their lives. I’m saying that modeling the behavior you want to see in others is perhaps the most powerful way to teach.

That’s why corporate ethics are such a problem in this day and age. Most CEOs want their employees to act like they say, not like they do. Most parents want their children to behave as they tell them to, not as they do.

For many of these kids, the only interactions they have with adults are the yelling, screaming, exasperation, frustration, and disgust we give them. We are constantly modeling behavior for these young people -- and we are failing. Look at the homicides in Richmond. This senseless violence is completely out of control.

Violence in Richmond is a topic for another day, but I will get to that soon.

For now, let me return to some of my own stories.

My first year as a credentialed school psychologist, I found myself working in a large school district with 30,000 students. One of the schools I oversaw was a middle school in a poor community with a great deal of gang-related activity.

I had several suicidal students on my case load. There is nothing more stressful than having the responsibility for suicidal 13 year olds. What’s more, I could only find time to see each of them ten minutes per week. And I was the only mental health care provider, or any sort of health care provider for that matter, that looked after these kids. I am constantly grateful for the mental health care workers out there on the front lines because it is a demanding and draining job. A bad day at work is when a child dies due to suicide, car crash, overdose or gun shot.

So I’m working on supporting these young teens as best I can, when I can, and hoping they don’t do anything rash and the pressure begins to get to me. At that point, the head school psychologist for the district places another severely depressed student into a classroom at my school. This student had made several attempts on her own life by the age of thirteen. Remember, I was a rookie at this point. I had been trained but I was green. So I was still under the impression that things followed some sort of clear logic in school districts. Nope. I was wrooooong.

Let me ask you a question. I know you’re not trained to answer this sort of question but give it a try. You may surprise yourself.

Pretend you have a severely depressed student who has a history of suicide attempts. Would you place her (a) in a classroom for learning disabled students or (b) in a classroom for severely emotionally disabled students?

See! I knew you could do it! It was clear to me that she belonged in the severely emotionally disturbed classroom. However, the head of school psychologists for the district put her in my learning disabled classroom. I couldn’t make sense of it. I spent 4 months fighting the district to get her properly placed in the SED class which had a full-time psychologist on hand all day long. It was roughly this time in my life when I realized that very intelligent people could make stupid decisions even when it had to do with life and death. It was this lack of common sense that forced me out of the public school system to start my own company doing applicant testing for large companies.

Alright. I told you a somber story, so now let me do a lighter bit.

This just in, there is a new 800 number you can call to get an accurate mental health diagnosis.
When you call, the automated attendant says,

Hello! Welcome to the Psychiatric Hotline.

If you are obsessive-compulsive, please press 1 repeatedly.
If you are co-dependent, please have someone press 2.
If you have multiple personalities, please press 3, 4, 5, and 6.
If you are paranoid, we know who you are and what you want. Just stay on the line so we can trace the call.
If you are schizophrenic, listen carefully and a little voice will tell you which number to press.
If you are depressed, it doesn't really matter which number you press. No one will answer.

Here’s a good psych joke...

A psychologist was conducting group therapy with four young mothers. "You are all obsessed!" he observed.

To the first mother he said, "You are obsessed with eating. You went so far as to name your daughter Candy."

He turned to the second mom. "Your obsession is money. Again, it shows up in your child's name, Penny."

He turned to the third mom. "Your obsession is alcohol and your child's name is Brandy."

At this point, the fourth mother got up, took her little boy by the hand and whispered, "Come with me, Richard, we’re going home!"

Now that you know about some of my formative experiences, perhaps you can understand why it becomes necessary to have a gallows sense of humor. A gallows sense of humor is a dark sense of humor which enables you to laugh at the disgusting, repulsive and the insane. Studies have shown that emergency room workers with a gallows sense of humor are more likely to be happy, have less job burnout, and are more satisfied with their work. It’s a defense mechanism that allows you to laugh at the insanity going on around you.

Remember to laugh. You've gotta' laugh!

Your friendly neighborhood shrink,

Dr. John
Guide To Self
KDIA 1640 AM
5 pm Monday - Friday
Guide To Self(C) 2005.


At 2:21 PM, Blogger I.:.S.:. said...

Is that gallows humour?

That comes nowhere near gallows humour.

But yes, you need aa measure of that when faced with the gallows or with ugly death otherwise.

At 10:47 AM, Anonymous Blue Cross of California said...

Great blog I hope we can work to build a better health care system as we are in a major crisis and health insurance is a major aspect to many.


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